Torture Heavy

David Rose, author of Guantanamo: The War on Human Rights (The New Press), talks with TAP about the brutality of American guards, legal doctrines that guide them, and the casual acceptance of torture carried out by interrogators.

What led you to write about the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the first place?

I've had a very strong interest in legal, criminal-justice, and human-rights issues for over 20 years. My dad is a lawyer and my sister is a lawyer. I was crime correspondent for the Guardian in the '80s. I did a lot of work on miscarriages of justice. It was obviously an area I had some background in. I was used to dealing with people who had been charged and were going to have trials. And to see a large number of people who weren't [few of the detainees at Guantanamo have been charged with specific crimes], that was very shocking. Vanity Fair asked me to go to Guantanamo, and I went for four days in October 2003. [Subsequently] I managed to interview four of the five Brits who were released last March.

This seems, in some ways, a book that an American ought to have written. Why did you, as a Brit, decide to get involved?

It has global significance. What I call the “Guantanamo System” is part of the global system America created after [September 11]. It represents such a global fracture with the legal traditions that have sustained Anglo-Saxon polities for hundreds of years -- and a fracture with the human-rights movement, and with the philosophy of the Enlightenment. And the world of justice and imprisonment was never going to be quite the same because of this. The acceptance of evidence in secret hearings, evidence gathered under torture in Guantanamo -- it is a kind of pollutant whose contamination spreads far beyond the island of Cuba.

You open your book with a pointed, and controversial, comparison to Nazi Germany, and throughout the book you reference various totalitarian regimes of the recent past that adopted an ends-justify-the-means approach. Do you think this is an entirely fair, or historically accurate, comparison?

Clearly, it's only appropriate up to a point. I'm not trying to suggest the regime of George W. Bush is equivalent to the regime of Adolf Hitler. It's clearly not the same. However, I do think this whole system represents the taking of quite a few steps down the road of totalitarian regimes. It's appropriate to make these comparisons. Habeas corpus is so deeply engrained in law in America, and here it was being casually set aside with barely a thought. This isn't just wrong, it isn't just immoral; it's also very stupid. It's a very ineffective way of fighting terrorism. Due process is the best weapon we have to fight terrorism.

Does the scale of al-Qaeda's attacks, and the scale of its intentions, justify a stronger response than would be acceptable in other circumstances?

Al-Qaeda [as it existed pre-9-11] no longer exists. There was a tightly organized terrorist network based in Afghanistan. There is still an idea inspired by al-Qaeda, and an ideology. But the degree of organization and sophistication that made 9-11 possible has been destroyed. And, by the way, I have no quarrel with the idea of the war in Afghanistan. It was a justified war. But an attack on the scale of 9-11, especially in the United States, is no longer possible.

So Guantanamo is not justified?

Three and a half years is adequate time for reflection. And the Bush administration is completely unwilling to do this. I almost excuse the response in the wake of 9-11. I don't any longer. I think we are constantly being fed ever more hyped assessments of the level of threat to justify what is being done.

This leads to two questions: a) What are we sowing in Guantanamo? And, b) How else could a dirty war -- which wars against terrorist organizations seem inevitably to be -- be fought?

It's arguable that the dirtier you are in the way you fight these wars, the more likely you are to lose them in the end. Algeria is a case in point. How many thousands were tortured by the French in Algeria? And it ended in humiliating defeat. The war against the [Irish Republican Army], as it started to get cleaner -- that's when the British started to win. At the time it was dirtiest; in the 1970s, that was the time they were creating the greatest grievances and recruiting the most to the other side. Fighting fire with fire doesn't work very well. What are we sowing? Guantanamo is now an icon in the Islamic world. It speaks to the everyday experiences of millions of Muslims, in a way that can only lead to recruitment to the jihadist cause.

In writing about the brutalities inflicted on prisoners at Guantanamo, many of whom seem to have been picked up randomly and to have little to no connection to al-Qaeda, you seem struck by the combination of sheer ineptness and banal brutality. What, to you, is the strangest thing about Guantanamo?

Many things. Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that you spend all this money, you create such hostility, and then the people you get to do the bulk of your dirty work, the interrogators, are completely ill-equipped. They haven't got a clue. These are the last people in the world who are going to discover their [inmates'] secrets. It's just not going to happen.

You detail the legal paper trail created to justify the use of extreme interrogation techniques. Why not simply turn a blind eye and have these brutalities carried out entirely under the table?

Is this somewhat akin to classical Rome's slide from democracy and the rule of law to Empire and the rule of the Caesars? And, if it is, is it irreversible, or is there something worthy to be salvaged out of the American system?

I absolutely go with that analogy. There is a danger that this is a watershed between the values of the Republic and the values of some new Quasi-Empire. They all speak to that possibility. The Roman Empire didn't quite know what it was for or where it was going when it started. If this is a new American Empire, it doesn't yet know either. But that doesn't mean it isn't happening. There's no trace of the constitutional system in Guantanamo. [But] There is still a battle which is winnable, and in the end it probably will be won. I'm relatively optimistic. I suspect this could, in 30 years, be seen as something in some ways analogous to McCarthyism. It's still to play for. I love America. I find America an enormously stimulating and fascinating place to be in, and in many ways a congenial place to be in. I think there are many great virtues in American society and polity. I think they've been somewhat eclipsed. But they re-emerge in unexpected ways. Things change fast in America.

Regarding the forces unleashed at Guantanamo, what do you think Bush's historical legacy will be?

It's too early to answer that question. I think people will have very critical things to say. I think there'll be harsh judgments. He acted with certainty on the basis of very shallow knowledge and experience of what he was dealing with. He was a foreign policy and terrorism ignoramus when he became president. He didn't know what to do; he simply had no fucking idea. He was very vulnerable to dangerous, bad advice from people who had many things badly wrong.

Sasha Abramsky is the author of Hard Times Blues and an upcoming book on voting rights, which will be published by The New Press in 2006.

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